From Paradise to Philadelphia, Alumnus is Present at the Creation

John T. McNay, (Ph.D., Temple, 1997)
Assistant Professor of History
Raymond Walters College
University of Cincinnati

When I first stepped out of the subway on Broad Street at Temple University in September 1993, I admit that I did not quickly embrace the gritty and crowded nature of North Philadelphia, and the very urban Temple campus. Keep in mind that my previous collegiate experience had been at the Universities of Montana and Hawaii, and you can understand how the scene that I encountered represented a break with my past.

It was, in fact, an opening to a whole new range of experience, both academically and in lifestyle, that broadened my understanding in many ways. My arrival in Philadelphia was the continuation of a journey to change careers that I had embarked on in 1990 when I had left my job as a newspaper reporter at the Montana Standard in Butte. After 10 years in journalism in Montana and Idaho, I had decided to take a new route. I returned to my alma mater, the University of Montana, with the initial plan to acquire a master’s in history that would help me in the journalism job market. However, I found that I enjoyed graduate school so much that I became interested in going on for a doctorate. Those who have never had a job out in the real world cannot really appreciate how wonderful it is to be able to sit around with intelligent and well-educated people, and talk about books and history. I felt then, as I do now, that my graduate student career was an entirely positive experience.

My mentor at Montana, Dr. Michael Mayer, had met Professor Richard Immerman while in graduate school. When I said that I was interested in continuing toward a Ph.D. and studying the history of American foreign relations, Mayer told me he knew just the guy. I met Richard Immerman for the first time in a hallway at Sakimaki Hall at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. Busy as ever, he ushered me into his office where we began a friendship that has been one of my most positive experiences in academia.

A complication developed shortly after my arrival in Hawaii. Richard had taken a job at Temple University, an institution about which I really knew nothing. The difficult choice facing me was to leave Honolulu for Philly. As a lifelong westerner, I had never even been to the East Coast.

Continuing to study with Dr. Immerman was, of course, a great advantage in making such a move, but there was more to it than that. What attracted me to the Temple program was the concentration of experts focusing on the history of American diplomacy and military affairs (or in Richard’s famous humorous phrase, “The Military-Diplomatic Complex”). This meant primarily, at the time, Richard Immerman, David Rosenberg and Russell Weigley, although other faculty contributed in important ways. The cast has changed much since then, especially with regard to the sad passing of Dr. Weigley who was such a force in the department. Nevertheless, if anything, the program’s focus has been enhanced with the addition of several new outstanding faculty members in recent years. Key among the factors in my deciding to relocate to Temple was the creation of the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy (CENFAD). I wanted to be part of a department where issues about the use of force and diplomacy were central to the department’s mission, not peripheral.

In sum, aside from the weather, I was never disappointed in my decision to follow Professor Immerman and move to Temple from Hawaii. It was, in every way, a good move professionally.

Seminars at Temple were challenging and a rich breeding ground of ideas from both the faculty and students. One of the real advantages, I think, is that those of us who were most inclined to focus on the diplomacy of a certain issue were in seminars confronted by new questions and other issues that focused instead on military aspects. Similarly, I’m sure those who wanted to concentrate exclusively on military issues were consistently reminded by their fellow students that there was a broader context.

I think that integration of force and diplomacy at the seminar level at Temple has contributed to the outlook that I have regarding international history, and even international affairs today. It is, in many ways, a recognition of complexity, and that there are no simple solutions. I believe that most of us who are graduates of the program recognized instantly the problem in the current Bush administration’s foreign policy with its penchant to focus on force alone. It has been to most grads with CENFAD experience, I believe, the sound of one hand clapping.

One thing I am happy to have been a part of at Temple was the resurrection of the James A. Barnes Club, and the creation of the annual conference. Professor William Cutler, then graduate chair, had encouraged several of us to get the club started again in 1994. The old graduate student organization had had a recent false start but had essentially been dead for several years. At a meeting at the downtown campus, well attended by both the diplomatic-military and urban-social sides of the department, I was elected the new president (nominated against my will, I might add, by Temple graduate Jerry Bjelopera, now of Bowie State).

As the new president, I had two interrelated goals (hopes would be a better word). One was to build a better sense of community among the graduate students. A vehicle for that purpose was to create a graduate student conference. Hawaii held an annual Phi Alpha Theta conference that gave students an opportunity to get experience presenting papers and it had been a good exercise for me. I thought that a similar conference would give the Barnes Club a concrete purpose that might prevent it from fading away again. Many people pitched in to make that first conference a success as well as those that came after it, especially past presidents, Chris DeRosa, now of Monmouth University, and Jennie Speelman, now of the Citadel. Because memories of James A. Barnes had faded, I wrote a brief biographical sketch about him by talking with Dr. Weigley, who remembered him, and doing some research at the Paley Library archives. I see that brief piece about Professor Barnes now appears on the Barnes Club website. And the tenth Barnes Club conference has recently taken place. Like CENFAD, the club and conference seem to be thriving and serving their purposes of creating a sense of community and giving students an opportunity at conference presentation.

My dissertation had its origins in the first seminar paper I wrote in Richard Immerman’s foreign policy course in Hawaii. After studying the role of neutrals in World War II, I became interested in the Republic of Ireland as a neutral. As I investigated, I discovered that Ireland had never joined NATO, primarily because it would not be a party to a treaty with Britain as long as Britain, in Ireland’s view, occupied part of Ireland. Further research uncovered what seemed an abrupt slamming of the door on the whole topic by the United States. Dean Acheson, primarily, made the abrupt decision. This took place in the context of NATO attempting to gain universal membership in western Europe, and recommendations by both the U.S. Chiefs of Staff and the British government that Ireland was essential to the success of NATO. Yet Ireland’s bringing up the issue of partition was sufficient to cut off all dialogue. It was, Acheson said, “evidence that Ireland is not serious about the alliance.” The sharp tone and swiftness of decision made me wonder if there was not something more than mere “realism” at work.

Further research uncovered the fact that Acheson was not of English ancestry, as he had allowed to be believed, but instead was of Ulster Protestant heritage. Perhaps no group of people in the world is so committed to ideas of empire than are the Ulster Protestants. The question I asked myself was: Did Acheson’s Ulster background influence his foreign policy decisions? If so, how wide an impact beyond Ireland did this admiration for empire have on Achesonian diplomacy? After research in archives in the United States and Britain, my conclusion was that Acheson’s outlook represented a well-developed worldview that favored imperial-style relationships. I found that these concepts did indeed broadly affect his foreign policy design as it applied to the former colonial world. Rather than being the coldly-calculating realist he claimed to be, I argued that Acheson’s approach to those areas of the former colonial world were more those of a romantic imperialist determined to prop up the remnants of the fading British Empire. A key issue was that he did not perceive a conflict of interests because he believed American and British interests were essentially the same, even in the colonial world.

After chapters describing Acheson’s personal heritage and his unique relationship with Harry Truman, I examined his policies toward four areas of the former British Empire: Ireland, India, Iran, and Egypt. It was Acheson’s consistent vision across those diverse regions that was so striking. I remember my dissertation defense, with Immerman, Weigley, Rosenberg, and Dr. Robert Jervis of Columbia University ranged around a table. There was a quite vigorous discussion that I think we all enjoyed.

That debate presaged the reception of Acheson and Empire: The British Accent in American Foreign Policy, published by the University of Missouri Press in 2001, a substantially edited version of the dissertation. Widely-reviewed, the book often splits readers into two camps, those willing to accept the implications of Acheson’s romantic imperial worldview and those firmly-wedded to the orthodoxy of Acheson as only a realist. I consider it a badge of honor that the Washington Times chose to publish a biting review. However, across town, The Washington Monthly opined: “Acheson and Empire comes as a welcome palliative to the prevailing hagiography.”

I believe my dissertation was helpful in my obtaining employment for several reasons, although I think that gaining substantial teaching experience is a key to getting a tenure-track job. My dissertation dealt with a significant figure in the Cold War, and for that reason garnered some attention. But, for people outside of our fields who make up the majority of the hiring committees CENFAD graduates face, the two intertwined theoretical approaches were helpful in gaining their interest. One is cognitive psychology, and the other is memory theory. They are both useful tools in analyzing decision-making and familiar concepts in the broader fields of history. While insisting on keeping the work closely tied to the documents, Professor Immerman encouraged the creative use of new approaches and perspectives. No dissertation that Richard directs is going to be merely “what one clerk said to another.”

Over the last year or so, I have been editing the unpublished memoirs of Ambassador Henry F. Grady, a diplomat in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. A Columbia Ph.D. in economics, Grady’s diplomatic career started in the early 1920s and culminated in three ambassadorships in the early Cold War: India, Greece, and Iran, respectively. I hope to have it completed and in the hands of a press this summer. Grady, working closely with Cordell Hull in the 1930s, was a leader in the effort to create the system of reciprocal trade agreements that is central to our current international trade arrangements. As an ambassador, Grady was a great critic of Achesonian diplomacy and argued that American policy should have been more concerned with fostering relationships with the newly emerging nations than with supporting what Grady viewed as the collapsing British Empire.

The job market remains a difficult challenge, but as I think about the students who passed through the program with me, many of them have landed good jobs. At the same time, I have heard complaints from Ivy League colleagues at the lack of help they’ve received from their faculty in trying to find a job. My experience at Temple could not be more different. The faculty at Temple has always been supportive and interested in helping, including writing letters and making personal contacts, especially Immerman, Weigley, and James Hilty.

I sometimes have considered careers beyond academia, and I especially sometimes miss the news business. But I would also miss teaching and the interaction with students and the freedom the profession gives for research and writing. Still, given the state of the job market, I would encourage new graduates to be open-minded and creative about using their doctorates. There are a lot of good opportunities outside of academia where you can still be doing history and using the skills you have developed and be making important contributions. Temple grads have already found positions in the federal government and think tanks.

After temporary positions at Cheyney University in suburban Philadelphia and Shippensburg University in south-central Pennsylvania, I landed my tenure-track job in 2000 at the University of Cincinnati’s Raymond Walters College. It has been an interesting five years as I’ve weaned myself from Philly cheesesteaks and grown fond of Cincinnati chili (“Do you want it 3-way, 4-way, or 5-way?”). As a suburban branch campus, we do not have graduate students, but we have a lot of flexibility in what we teach. Since my arrival, I have introduced a range of classes in foreign policy and military history, including courses on the Cold War, World War II, and the Vietnam War. Next year, I’ll begin teaching a yearlong American foreign policy survey. With four courses per term, the teaching load is rather heavy, but made manageable by having small classes and just two preps. I’ve made an effort to get beyond the ivory tower by speaking on historical topics to groups in the city, such as the Japan America Society, the English-Speaking Union, and the Tri-State Turkish American Association.

While RWC is a small college (about 4,300 students), being part of a large research institution (UC is about the same size as Temple) means having access to all the university’s resources. I have been able to teach a graduate course at the main campus called War and the Modern World, which seemed earmarked for a CENFAD graduate. We also have an active study abroad program. Three years ago, a colleague and I led a group of students to Europe for a course on World War II. In June, we’ll be trying to repeat that success with a course on World War I that includes visits to the Somme and Ypres battlefields. My interest in bringing the students to the scene of a military event and thus making it more relevant was sparked by a valuable trip that several of us were able to make to the Manassas battlefield with Dr. Weigley in 1995.

That drive toward relevance is, it seems to me, a critical dimension of CENFAD’s work. It reminds one of Richard’s familiar “So What?” question directed at so many potential dissertation topics. I understand that the center is engaged in several fields of investigation: issues of war and society, the effect of war on civilian and non-combatant populations, and the proliferation of small arms. Those seem to me to be excellent areas of concentration and are clearly relevant to today’s international issues. The only thing I might add is that I have always thought that the role of ideology, intertwined as it is with cognition and memory, is key and that it is usually very historically based. Not surprisingly, in his seminal The American Way of War, Dr. Weigley struck at the heart of this issue:

“This book of history, like probably most histories that look back beyond only yesterday, is based on an assumption that what we believe and what we do today is governed at least as much by the habits of mind we formed in the relatively remote past as by what we did and thought yesterday. The relatively remote past is apt to constrain our thought and actions more, because we understand it less well than we do our recent past, or at least recall it less clearly, and it has cut deeper grooves of custom in our minds” (xx).

It might be worthwhile for CENFAD to remember as it does its work that these “deeper grooves of custom” in the way we perceive events and people in our world, and our history, need to be constantly re-examined, so that they do not become dogma that obscures our understanding.

In conclusion, CENFAD played an important role in starting my career and CENFAD/Temple faculty have stayed involved and interested in my career. I intend to do the same with CENFAD and Temple.